Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Free laptops 'nightmare'


Flashback: Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, centre, congratulates pupils of South East Port of Spain Secondary after presenting them with Laptops at a ceremony in the school's hall in September 2010 –Photo: STEPHEN DOOBAY

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THE gift of free laptops to form one pupils at the beginning of the school term last September was Government's fulfilled manifesto promise, but, nearing the end of the school year, the initiative is being described as an implementation nightmare.

So it is no surprise to discover that many a schoolchild has not had the benefit of using the laptop in the classroom.

"We use it a lot, but not in school," said 12-year-old Mercedes Moraldo.

A pupil at the Tranquility Government Secondary School, Moraldo was responding to questions about how she uses the Hewlett Packard (HP) laptop given to her by the Government as part of its eConnect and Learn programme.

In a Sunday Express investigation, officials within the education sector said while there were many positive aspects to the programme, realistically they face mountains when it comes to incorporating the laptops into the education curriculum.

Said Principal at the Queen's Royal College, Lennard Hinkson:

"It's been a little difficult, initially because the laptops were given to the students before the staff was properly prepared".

"Laptops for staff came last term (approximately five months ago)....Students were encouraged all the time to put the laptops to good use, for research and they were doing that, of course, they were also playing games on the laptops and we tried to manage that situation to the best of our ability."

Last year, 161 laptops were distributed in three secondary schools across Trinidad within the first 120 days of the People's Partnership getting into office.

The distribution was part of the Government's manifesto promise to give the pupils who passed the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA).

Since then, all 17,300 first form pupils as well as 3,000 teachers have received their laptop.

The laptops were purchased from Hewlett Packard (HP) at a cost of $83million to the taxpayers and is said to be valued at $12,000 to $15,000 each by virtue of the applications installed.

In January this year, Education Minister Dr Tim Goopeesingh told members of the media that they trained more than 1,000 teachers, supervisors and principals on the use of laptops in the curriculum.

However, QRC's Hinkson does not believe this training was adequate.

"I do not agree that does sessions were as effective as the Ministry intended them to be," he said.

He said that for many schools around the world, 21st century readiness necessitates providing a computer for each child, but that these programmes were about more than computers.

First vice president at the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), Devanand Sinanan also felt more training should be given to teachers.

In a telephone interview last Thursday, he said:

"The approach that the Ministry uses to train teachers is what is called the cascade approach, that is some teachers were called to a training centre and exposed to one or two days of training in terms of how to incorporate the technology into the curriculum and they were supposed to have gone back to their schools and share those competencies with the colleagues. That cascade approach is not always a successful one".

"Teachers who were trained within recent times, for example the ones who would have come through the Diploma in Education programme, they would have learned to incorporate the technology into the teaching as it were, but older teachers, who would have not updated and upgraded themselves would have had some challenges.

"So there are some inconsistencies in the way the laptops are being utilised in the various schools to enhance student learning outcomes."

Besides that, Sinanan said many schools had infrastructural issues ranging from storage to electrical.

"Not all the schools got their upgrades too, in terms of internet and then they still have the security some children were finding it difficult to walk to and from school, for different reasons and schools of course, do not have space to store the laptops," he said.

In addition to all of these issues, an official from the Ministry's Information Technology department, who requested anonymity, said there was a problem with the internet filter software that is supposed to prevent the pupils from accessing certain websites, inclusive of Facebook, and all the laptops had to be recalled last year to be reprogrammed as some children were able to bypass that security checkpoint.

"Everybody had to send them back because it had some kind of problem with them," said 14-year-old Tranquility pupil Kiana James.

Asked how her classmates have been using the laptops, James said most of the children use it to play games, record fights and other things that happen in the school since they did not have internet access.

"The teachers told us to get our own flash drives (portable device used to store information) that we have to use to get information and when we come to school, we put it in the laptop and read it out, but that's just like for Spanish class," James added.

When the Sunday Express contacted the Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) about the free internet services they were supposed to provide to the schools, Manager of Media Relations and Corporate Communications Graeme Suite said broadband internet has been provided to all 132 public secondary schools.

"With the advent of the laptop computer programme last year, TSTT doubled the Internet bandwidth of the schools, and the network they are on.

"We also implemented safety filters on the schools internet network so that access to undesirable websites is blocked," he said.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry, asked what changes or additions have been made to the schools' curriculum to incorporate the laptops, talked about a competition for educators.